POSTCARD#50: Delhi: It’s cold here, fingertips touch the keys tentatively, unwilling to make contact. Feeling chilled all the time and can’t seem to get comfortable with this February weather. I just arrived from Thailand, my bag, still unpacked, contains the blue sky and sunshine of white shorts, sunglasses, T-shirts and rubber slippers. Wow it was hot there; I’m reluctant to let go of that nice feeling.
It’s like the world extends only as far as the immediate surroundings of where I’m currently situated and it takes a little time to reassemble things if I move 2000 miles to somewhere else. There’s the tendency to hold on to nice things and I’m particularly reluctant to let go of it this time because the visit to Delhi is only for a couple of weeks, then I go back to Thailand again. So I’m in transit, not really ‘here’, and that’s why I’m making the excuse that it’s not necessary to unpack my bag.
My bag is an extension of ‘me’, it’s my identity, part of the self-construct I’ve created, the same as everyone else’s sense of ‘self’. I feel a fondness for my bag, a familiarity and a connection with that small volume of folded clothing, flattened garments, papers, books and various computer cables, that’ll be zipped up tight, X-rayed and pushed back into its space in the aircraft baggage section along with all the other bags, and away we go back to the sunshine. But that hasn’t happened yet, and I’m stuck here in the cold for a number of days.
When it’s warm enough I go up on to the roof terrace, to the place where the sun shines through between the buildings and there’s a patch of sunlight where I can sit on my chair. The chair is in the same place it was two months ago and for a moment there’s a kind of presence about that empty chair… déjà vu; the ‘self’ that was there at that time is gone completely, no familiarity with it – yet I remember being here quite clearly. Now I’m sitting in the warm sunshine, recreating a ‘self’ that suits this time and place, for this duration, knowing that soon it’ll be gone too. Phenomena are as they are for a short time and disappear; it’s as if the appearance of everything has the quality of a pencil sketch, a pleasant unfinishedness.
I look at things, and they’re gone – it’s the time needed to process the thought. Objects are experienced not in present time but just as they’re slipping into the past; everything is always seen in hindsight. Conclusions arrived at after the event. Nothing remains. The day I die will be an ordinary day. The moment after I’m gone will be no different from any other. It’ll be like a pause in the middle of a sentence… the focus on the object slips away, the next moment will just be the next moment and things will go on as if nothing happened. The fragility of the world held for an instant then it’s gone, only the space where everything used to be and the silence left behind…
‘Usually when we hear the teaching on not-self, we think that it’s an answer to questions like these: “Do I have a self? What am I? Do I exist? Do I not exist?” However, the Buddha listed all of these as unskillful questions. Once, when he was asked point-blank, “Is there a self? Is there no self?” he refused to answer. He said that these questions would get in the way of finding true happiness. So obviously the teaching on not-self was not meant to answer these questions. To understand it, we have to find out which questions it was meant to answer.’ [Thanissaro Bhikkhu: ‘Selves & Not-self: The Buddhist Teaching on Anatta’]
“However, the Buddha listed all of these as unskillful questions. Once, when he was asked point-blank, “Is there a self? Is there no self?” he refused to answer. He said that these questions would get in the way of finding true happiness. So obviously the teaching on not-self was not meant to answer these questions. To understand it, we have to find out which questions it was meant to answer.’”
From a theist viewpoint:
This is it, you have to work out who’s doing the looking to see what you’re looking for…
I had the feeling you would understand. 🙂
The Buddha’s teaching is beyond being and nonbeing, existence and nonexistence, becoming and not-becoming. These are not just fancy words or sophism; it is an experience beyond even the highest jhāna of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. I’m happy to hear this level of insight from another western sādhaka.
Thank you for this wonderful description Venerable. I’ve thought of it as something beyond ‘normal’ experience and language doesn’t stretch that far. I’m limited in what I know, writing about ordinary conscious awareness in the Dhamma context has become an aspect of the practice for me. Thanks for your visit. Anjali
Enjoyed your profound post! I think we can only process the past. The present slips through our fingers nanosecond by nanosecond, if not more quickly but I cannot put words to that kind of speed. Dreaming of India, last night in fact, though never been there. Hope you will enjoy your stay.
Yes, it’s like this, we process the past, the world is ‘seen’ and curiously the one who sees is absent at the actual moment of seeing. Thanks for your comment, India is a huge landscape of all and everything – very much like a dream…
From New Delhi to Thailand (a spiritual perspective):
“(…) The celestial life of the soul can last hundreds of thousands of years, according to its rank and its impelling force. But it is the privilege of only the more perfect, the more sublime, those who have gone beyond the circle of generations to prolong it indefinitely. The former have reached not only temporary rest, but immoral activity in truth; they have created their wings. They are inviolable, for they are light; they govern the worlds, for they see beyond. As for the others, they are led by an inflexible law to be born again in order to undergo a new trial and to elevate themselves to a higher degree or to fall still lower if they fail.
Like earthly life, spiritual life has its beginning, its climax and its decline. When this life is exhausted, the soul feels overcome with heaviness, faintness and melancholy. An invincible force again draws it to the struggle and sufferings of earth. This desire is mixed with terrible apprehensions and a tremendous grief at leaving the divine life. But the time has come; the law must be fulfilled. The heaviness increases, a darkening takes place within it. It sees its luminous companions only through a veil, and this veil, growing ever thicker, causes the soul to sense the imminent separation. It hears their sad farewells; the tears of the happy loved ones permeate it like a celestial dew and will leave in its heart the burning thirst for a forgotten happiness. Then, with solemn vows it promises to remember: in the world of darkness to remember light, in the world of falsehood to remember truth, in the world of hate to remember love. Only at this price can the soul gain the return and the immortal crown. Now it awakens in a heavy atmosphere. Ethereal star, diaphanous souls, oceans of light, — all have disappeared. Again the soul is on earth, in the vale of birth and death. Nevertheless, it has not yet lost its celestial memory, and its winged guide, still visible to its eyes, points out the Woman who will be its mother. The latter carries within her the seed of a child. But this seed will live only if the spirit comes to animate it. Then, during nine months is accomplished the most impenetrable mystery of earthly life, that of incarnation and maternity.
The mysterious fusion takes place slowly, systematically, organ by organ, fiber by fiber. As the soul is plunged into this warm cave which makes a confused sound and which enlarges, as it feels itself taken into the organism, the consciousness of divine life fades and dies away. For between the soul and the light from above are interspersed waves of blood, tissues of flesh, which bind it and fill it with darkness. Already this distant light is no more than a dying flicker. Finally, dreadful pain compresses it, pressing it into a vice, a bloody convulsion tears it from the maternal soul and fixes it within a throbbing body. — The child is born, a pitiful earthly image, and he cries with fright. But the memory of heaven has returned to the secret depths of the unconscious. It will live again only by science or by pain, by love or by death!
The law of incarnation and excarnation emphasizes the real meaning of life and death. It constitutes the main link in the evolution of the soul, allowing us to follow the latter backward and forward to the depths of nature and of divinity. For this law reveals to us the rhythm and measure, the reason and purpose of immortality. Taking the latter out of the abstract or the fantastic, it makes it alive and logical by showing the correspondences between life and death. Earthly birth is a death from the spiritual point of view, and death is a heavenly birth. The alternation between the two lives is necessary for the development of the soul, and each of the two is both the result and explanation of the other. Whoever has fathomed these truths has arrived at the very heart of the Mysteries, at the center of initiation.
But, you will say, what is there to prove to us the continuity of the soul, of the monad and of the spiritual entity throughout all these existences, since it successively loses memory? And what, we reply, proves to you the identity of your self while you are awake and asleep? You awaken each morning from a strange state as inexplicable as death, you revive from this nothingness, only to fall back into it again in the evening. Was it nothingness? No, for you have dreamed, and for you your dreams have been as real as the reality of waking. A change of the physiological conditions of the brain has modified the relationships of soul and body and has altered your psychic viewpoint. You were the same individual, but you found yourself in another environment and you were leading another existence. With hypnotized persons, somnambulists and clairvoyants, sleep acquires new faculties which to us seem miraculous but are the natural faculties of the soul when it is detached from the body. Once awakened, these clairvoyants no longer remember what they saw, said and did during their sleep. However, in one of their sleeps, they recall perfectly what happened in the preceding sleep and sometimes foretell with mathematical exactness what will happen in the next one. Therefore they have two consciousnesses, two distinctly alternating lives, but each has its rational continuity and revolves around the same individual. (…)”
This is a breathtaking view of the wheel of life– an exquisite explanation that sums up the cycle perfectly. I stand in awe.
Thanks for this. Wow! word count: 934 – the comment is longer than the post. I like it! This describes so beautifully the Heaven Realms in Buddhist cosmology. Beings are born into a particular realm according to their past kamma. When they pass away, they take rebirth once again elsewhere according to the quality of their kamma: wholesome actions bring about a favorable rebirth, while unwholesome actions lead to an unfavorable one. And so the cycle continues – except for those ‘who have gone beyond the circle of generations to prolong it indefinitely’…
Your observations of the depth contained in the every day always take me beyond the every day. I loved this passage: “The chair is in the same place it was two months ago and for a moment there’s a kind of presence about that empty chair… déjà vu; the ‘self’ that was there at that time is gone completely, no familiarity with it – yet I remember being here quite clearly.”
You can sense it in your writing: that change that wasn’t a change, the sameness that is nothing but, the illusion of continuity between two digital moments separated by a gap that cannot be measured. There’s an awareness you write about, of having been in both places– the same place twice– and what is the link? The link was the presence of your body. But somehow the fullness of your awareness was never really so limited, and filled the entirety of space in between.
The same self that was in both places never was, and is no longer, and yet someone wrote about all this beautifully!
Thank you Michael, somehow you seem to be able to come along and fill in the gaps, make the link that at the time I cannot find words for: “… the fullness of your awareness was never really so limited, and filled the entirety of space in between.” There is no self, all there is, is the awareness. And I’m not seeing it anymore as a tenuous thing that’s almost not there at all, I’m seeing it as the whole sky at once…
I so love your description of this shift, from trying to look past a self, to simply being with all of it. It reminds me of one of the tenets of A Course in Miracles related to forgiveness, which is that it doesn’t work so well when we insist something is real, and then subsequently try to say it’s okay. It was never real at all, that’s the thing… It reminds me of this experience you describe of this “tenuous thing that’s almost not there”, and then realizing it was never quite there at all. Ha! Incredible.
Hi Michael and thanks again for commenting. I haven’t read A Course in Miracles and curious to know a bit about it, so I gave it to my younger sister for her birthday last month and waiting for her to report back. I do prefer to see things in terms of emptiness, the lightness and open space of being. What else is there? ‘It was never real at all, that’s the thing…’ Yay! Always good to have you visit
Thank you. Let me know how it goes, although I have to say, I know these things are basically just triggers to launch us into that “lightness and open space of being”, and no single one of them is THE way. This particular trigger helped me greatly. Some others, too. Perhaps your sister. Perhaps not. None of us “need” the help we seek. We just need a nudge to realize we are beyond helping, as we are somehow integral to the grandeur and meaning of what is. The Course is in part about shedding false identity, and the thought system of how to perceive the world as a “separate being” that goes with the false identity, so that what is can emerge all on its own…
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